Red Mandarin Dress
By Qiu Xiaolong
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Qiu Xiaolong
All rights reserved.
CHIEF INSPECTOR CHEN CAO, of the Shanghai Police Bureau, was startled out of his dream by an early phone call.
Rubbing his eyes, as he snatched up the receiver, he saw the clock on the nightstand pointing to seven thirty. He had stayed up late last night writing a letter to a friend in Beijing, quoting a Tang dynasty poet, to say what he found difficult to say in his own words. Afterward, he managed to lose himself in a dream of the heartless Tang willows lined along the deserted bank in a light green mist.
"Hello, I am Zhong Baoguo, of the Shanghai Legal System Reform Committee. Is this Comrade Chief Inspector Chen?"
Chen sat up. That particular committee, a new institution under the Shanghai People's Congress, exercised no direct authority over him, but Zhong, higher in the Party cadre rank, had never contacted him before, let alone called him at home. The fragments of the willowshaded dream were fading quickly.
It could be one of those "politically sensitive" cases, preferably not discussed at the bureau. Chen detected a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Have you heard of the West-Nine-Block housing development case?"
"The West-Nine-Block? Yes, Peng Liangxin's development — one of the best areas in the center of the city. I have read articles about it."
In China's ongoing reform, some of the most unbelievable business opportunities were in housing development. In the past, with all the land controlled by the state, people had depended on the state housing assignment. Chen, too, had been assigned a room through the bureau quota. But in the early nineties, the government started selling land to emerging entrepreneurs. Peng — nicknamed the Number One Shanghai Big Buck — was one of the earliest and most successful developers. Since Party officials determined the land prices and allocation, corruption swarmed around like flies chasing blood. Through his connections, Peng obtained government approval for the West-Nine-Block development project. There, the old buildings had to be pulled down to make way for the new, and Peng drove out the original residents. It did not take long, however, for people to start complaining about the "black holes" in the business operation, and a scandal broke out.
But what could Chen do? Obviously, for a huge project like West-Nine-Block, a number of officials were involved. It could turn into a major case with disastrous political impact. Damage control, he guessed, would probably be the assignment waiting for him.
"Yes, we think you should look into the case. Especially into the attorney, Jia Ming, who represents those residents."
"Jia Ming?" Chen was even more puzzled. He did not know any details about the corruption case. He had heard of Jia as a successful attorney, but why should an attorney be the target? "Is he the attorney who defended the case for Hu Ping, the dissident writer?"
"Director Zhong, I am so sorry. I am afraid I cannot help with your case." He promptly came up with an excuse, instead of saying a straightforward no. "I have just enrolled in a special MA program at Shanghai University. Classical Chinese literature. The first few weeks are for intensive studies — I'll have no time for anything else."
More than merely an improvised excuse, it was something he had contemplated for some time. Technically, he wasn't yet enrolled, but he had made preliminary inquiries at the university about it.
"You are kidding, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen. What about your police work? Classical Chinese literature. Not in the line of your job at all. Are you looking for a new career?"
"Literature used to be my major — English literature. To be a competent investigator in today's society, one has to acquire as much knowledge as possible. This program includes psychology and sociology courses."
"Well, it's desirable to enlarge your knowledge horizon, but I just don't think you have the time in your position."
"It's a sort of special arrangement," Chen said. "Only a few weeks of intensive study — in classrooms like other students, and then nothing but papers. After that, the curriculum will be arranged in a way compatible with my work schedule." It was not exactly true. According to the program brochure he had picked up, the intensive weeks did not have to be now.
"I was hoping I could persuade you. A leading comrade in the city government suggested I talk to you today."
"I'll pay close attention to the case in whatever way possible," Chen said, meaning it as a face- saving comment for Zhong. He did not want Zhong to talk about the "leading comrade," whoever he might be.
"That's great. I'll have the case file sent to you," Zhong said, taking the comment as a concession from the chief inspector.
Afterward, Chen thought in frustration that he should have said no unequivocally.
After hanging up with Zhong, Chen realized he needed to find out as much as he could about the West-Nine-Block case. He immediately started making phone calls, and his gut feeling that this was an investigation to avoid proved to be right.
Peng Liangxin, the real estate developer, had started out as a dumpling peddler, but he displayed extraordinary expertise in building a connection network. He knew when and where to push red envelopes of money into the hands of the Party officials. In return, the Party had helped him push himself into a billionaire in only four or five years. He acquired the West-Nine-Block land with numerous bribes and a business plan for improving conditions for the residents there. Then, with the government document granting him the land, he obtained the necessary bank loans to build the development without having to spend a single penny of his own. He bullied the residents out with little or no compensation. The few resisting families he called "nail families," and he pulled them out forcibly, like nails, by hiring a group of Triad thugs. Several residents were badly beaten in a so-called "demolition campaign." What's more, instead of allowing the original residents to move back in as promised in his development proposal, he started selling the new apartments at a much higher price to buyers from Taiwan and Hong Kong. When people protested, he again enlisted the help of the local Triad, as well as that of the government officials. Several residents were jailed as troublemakers interfering with the development plan of the city. But as more and more people joined the protest, the government felt compelled to step in.
According to one source, Peng got into trouble more or less because of his nickname. There were many rich people in the city, some possibly even richer, but they managed to keep a low profile. Suffering from a swollen head due to his incredibly fast success, he delighted in people calling him the Number One Big Buck in Shanghai. As the gap between the rich and the poor increased, people voiced their frustration with the widespread corruption, and with Peng as a representative of it. As a Chinese proverb says, a bird reaching out its head will be shot.
The situation grew more complicated when the prominent attorney Jia Ming chose to speak for the residents. With his legal expertise, Jia soon uncovered more abuses in the fraudulent business operation, in which not just Peng but also his government associates were deeply involved. The case started to be widely reported, and the city government began to worry about it getting out of control. Peng was put into custody, and an open and fair trial was promised soon.
Chen frowned, picking up another fax page from his machine. The new fax claimed that Internal Security agents had been investigating Jia in secret. If they could find a way to get Jia in trouble, the corruption case would fall apart, but their efforts met with no success.
Chen crumbled the page into a ball and considered himself lucky for having come up with an excuse. At least he could still say he made no commitment because of the special MA program.
And an opportunity did present itself in the special program designed for rising Party cadres, who were supposedly too busy with more important work and were thus allowed to obtain a higher degree in a much shorter period of time.
There was also something else in it for Chen. By all appearances, he had been sailing smoothly in his career. He was one of the youngest chief inspectors on the force and the most likely candidate to succeed Party Secretary Li Guohua as the number one Party official at the Shanghai Police Bureau. Still, such a career had not been his choice, not back in his college years. In spite of his success as a police officer — no less surprising to himself than to others — and despite having several "politically important cases" to his credit, he felt increasingly frustrated with his job. A number of the cases had had results contrary to a cop's expectations.
Confucius says, There are things a man will do, and things a man will not do. Only there was no easy guideline for him in such a transitional, topsy-turvy age. The program might enable him, he reflected, to think from a different perspective.
So that morning he decided to visit Professor Bian Longhua of Shanghai University. The program had been an improvised excuse in his talk with Zhong, but it did not have to be so.
On the way there, he bought a Jinhua ham wrapped in the special tung paper, following a tradition as early as Confucius's time. The sage would not have taken money from his students, but he showed no objection to their gifts, such as hams and chickens. Only the ham proved to be too cumbersome for Chen to carry onto a bus, so he was obliged to call for a bureau car. Waiting in the ham store, he made several more phone calls about the housing development case, and the calls made him even more determined to avoid getting involved.
Little Zhou drove up sooner than Chen expected. A bureau driver who declared himself "Chief Inspector Chen's man," Little Zhou would spread the news of Chen's visit to Bian around. It might be just as well, Chen thought, beginning to mentally rehearse his talk with the professor.
Bian lived in a three-bedroom apartment in a new complex. It was an expensive location, unusual for an intellectual. Bian himself opened the door for Chen. A medium-built man in his mid-seventies, with silver hair shining against a ruddy complexion, Bian looked quite spirited for his age, and for his life experience. A young "rightist" in the fifties, a middle-aged "historical counterrevolutionary" during the Cultural Revolution, and an old "intellectual model" in the nineties, Bian had clung to his literature studies like a life vest all those years.
"This is far from enough to show my respect to you, Professor Bian," Chen said, holding up the ham. He then tried to find a place to put it down, but the new expensive furniture appeared too good for the ham wrapped in the oily tung paper.
"Thank you, Chief Inspector Chen," Bian said. "Our dean has talked to me about you. Considering your workload, we have just decided that you don't have to sit in the classroom like other students, but you still have to turn in your papers on time."
"I appreciate the arrangement. Of course I'll hand in papers like other students."
A young woman walked light-footed into the living room. She looked to be in her early thirties, dressed in a black mandarin dress and high-heeled sandals. She relieved Chen of the ham and put it on the coffee table.
"Fengfeng, my most capable daughter," Bian said. "A CEO of an American-Chinese joint venture."
"A most unfilial daughter," she said. "I studied business administration instead of Chinese literature. Thank you for choosing him, Chief Inspector Chen. It's a boost to his ego to have a celebrity student."
"No, it's an honor for me."
"You're doing great on the police force, Chief Inspector Chen. Why do you want to study in the program?" she wanted to know.
"Literature makes nothing happen," the old man joined in with a self-depreciating smile. "She, in contrast, bought the apartment, which was way beyond my means. So we live here — one country with two systems."
One country with two systems — a political catch phrase invented by Comrade Deng Xiaoping to describe socialist mainland China's coexistence with the capitalist Hong Kong after 1997. Here, it described a family whose members earned money from two different systems. Chen understood that people questioned his decision, but he tried not to care too much.
"It's like a road not taken, always so tempting to think about on a snowy night," he said, "and also a boost to one's ego to imagine an alternative career."
"I have to ask a favor of you," she said. "Father has diabetes and high blood pressure. He does not go to school every day. Can you come here to study instead?"
"Sure, if it's convenient for him."
"Don't you remember the line by Gao Shi?" Bian said. "'Alas, the most useless is a scholar.' Here I am, an old man capable of only 'carving insects' at home."
"Literature is of significance for a thousand autumns," Chen said, quoting a line in response.
"Well, your passion for literature is something. As in a Chinese saying, people with the same sickness pity one another. Of course, you may have to worry about your own kind of 'thirsty illness.' You are a romantic poet, I've heard."
Xiaoke zhi ji — thirsty illness. Chen had heard the term before, in reference to diabetes, which made one thirsty and tired. Bian had a way of talking, making a subtle reference both to his diabetes and to his thirst for literature, but what did that have to do with Chen's being a romantic poet?
When Chen got back into the car waiting for him outside, he caught Little Zhou examining a naked model in a copy of Playboy from Hong Kong. The term "thirsty illness" in ancient China, Chen suddenly recalled, might have been a metaphor for a young man's helpless romantic passion.
Then he was not so sure. He could have read the term somewhere but mixed it up with irrelevant associations. Sitting in the car, he found himself thinking like a cop again, searching for an explanation for Professor Bian's usage. He shook his head at his confused reflection in the rearview mirror.
Still, he felt good. The prospect of starting the literature program made the difference.
DETECTIVE YU GUANGMING, OF the Shanghai Police Bureau, sat brooding in the office — not exactly his, not yet. As the acting head of the special case squad, Yu had the office during Chen's leave.
Few seemed to take Yu seriously, though he had been in effective charge of the squad for longer periods before: weeks when Chen had been too busy, what with his political meetings and his well-paid translations. Still, Yu was seen as stepping in the shadow of Chen.
What troubled Yu was Chen's inexplicable determination to undertake the literature program. It was a decision that had given rise to numerous interpretations at the bureau. According to Liao Guochang, head of the homicide squad, Chen was trying to stay low after having ruffled high feathers, and so was adopting a bookish pose to keep himself out of the limelight for a while. It seemed to Little Zhou that Chen had his eye on a MA or a PhD — something crucial to his future career, for an advanced degree made a huge difference in the new policy of the Party cadre promotion. Commissar Zhang, a semiretired cadre of the older generation, saw Chen's studies in a different light, claiming that Chen planned to study abroad with a hongyan zhiji — an appreciating and understanding beauty — who was a US marshal. Like most of the rumors about Chen, no one could prove or disprove it.
Yu was not so sure about any of those views. And there was another possibility he could not rule out: something else might be going on. Chen had asked him about a housing development case without offering any explanation, which was unusual between the chief inspector and Yu.
Yu did not have much time to worry that morning. Party Secretary Li had summoned him to Inspector Liao's office.
Liao was a solidly built man in his early forties, owlish-looking with an aquiline nose and round eyes. He frowned at Yu's entrance. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong. Copyright © 2007 Qiu Xiaolong. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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